Sep 20, 2007

Lets Face it - is facebook the new buzzword in research circles?

In the past couple of months I have encountered facebook –quite literally - wherever I have turned my face! I have seen it land up in my inbox as invites from friends, pop up in conversations with colleagues, featured on blog posts and finally yesterday I was sent an article on - what sites like face book and myspace mean for research?

In the midst of all this I caught on to the facebook bandwagon just to see what it was all about!

From the little time that I have spent on facebook here is what I’ve observed…

What are people there for?

Small conversations that may not be of any consequence. Things like Wassup with you? Saw ur pics…really liked them or Am off to SL…see you guys in a week.

Grant McCracken has a good post on this – How social networks work . He refers to these as ‘phatic conversations’

This is communication with little hard, informational content, but lots of emotional and social content. Phatic communications doesn't get much said, but it has social effects so powerful, it gets lots done

It seems like a place for dipping in and out rather than immersing oneself deeply. Immersing would involve investment of a lot more energy and time. Perhaps email / IM would be a relatively more immersive style of communication.

My conjecture is – that’s what keeps the regularity of such conversations going and these networks thriving. Dropping in a one-liner on someone’s facebook wall is far less taxing than sitting down to write an email which would warrant some thought, structure and purpose.

So what does it mean for research?

Research has traditionally warranted an immersive approach to conversations. Lengthy & purposeful.

Online research and the use of discussion boards brought some change to this format. That was all about recruiting a panel and having short, non immersive, regular conversations with a set of people. Those were still purposeful conversations

What then is the difference between using a social networking site for research as opposed to using a discussion forum? The way I see it is that participants who are part of a discussion board have been brought there / have come on their own volition - for a specific purpose vis-à-vis people on social networking sites who are already hanging around there.

The difference is also that people at social networking sites are hanging around there and primarily engaging in Phatic conversations – the everyday emotional fillers. The kind of conversations marketers / researchers are likely to have on such platforms would not be quite like that. Even if they are limited to the small non immersive format – they are still going to be purposeful and rational – and therefore not likely to fulfill the need that people are there for.

The closest example I could think of was lunch time conversations that I would have with my female colleagues about inane things, interjected by our boss who’d spoil the party by constantly talking something work related. Even if it was something as small as just throwing up a question – it would be met out with disgusting looks – since that was not the right time and place to talk about such affairs.

What could be the way of tapping into social networking sites?

To start with it would require being sensitive to why people are on that channel. Use it to create that initial contact – open up a channel of communication….perhaps even understanding the way a target group thinks. I would be weary of using the platform literally to conduct research

Your thoughts?

Sep 19, 2007

The pitfalls of active engagement amongst researchers

For any qual researcher, having spent a few years in the profession, traveling becomes a very routine, mechanical exercise. So has been the case with me too. Getting in and out of airports has happened without much thought and the time available while flying has been spent going through the research material, if not catching up on the newspaper or sleep. Though a couple of days back, my experience was not quite like the usual.

My fatigue levels were so high thanks to bad work schedule, that it took me less than a minute to fall asleep from the time I boarded the flight. After 15 mins or so of deep sleep, I woke up, looked around and suddenly started feeling uneasy. I could not understand the feeling. I tried distracting myself by listening to my iPod, looking out of the window but nothing worked ! The dominant thought going through my mind was 'i need to get out of here'. The fact that it was not possible made it worse. Changing seats did not help either. I knew i was feeling claustrophobic!

I could attribute this feeling to an extremely cramped seat on a full aircraft. But more importantly I had spent the last couple of weeks researching in flight experiences amongst recent travelers. I had heard their apprehensions and fears around air travel over and over again and I think somewhere it struck a raw nerve.

In the past, I have read about counsellors / therapists developing negative reactions based on exposure to the client's unpleasant experiences. It is the result of active listening and a certain level of engagement and connection that the counsellor has with his client. The term used to describe this phenomenon is called 'vicarious traumatization'. It is usually characterized by a sudden/abrupt onset of symptoms in the therapist.

Though the probability of something similar happening amongst market research professionals is quite low, since we by and large deal with situations that are non-threatening or traumatic, the possibility is not altogether ruled out. A couple of years back I had spent an extensive amount of time interviewing people suffering from heart problems. Though that research did not conjure up any negative reactions in me, I remember one of the clients mention that she felt extremely disturbed hearing those accounts.

If you heard / experienced something like this happen to you or another researcher, I would like to hear from you. In the meanwhile I am hoping that by the time I need to take my next flight I get back into my robotic routine.